The Influence of India on Malay Culture
Hindu influence in the Malay Peninsula was initially limited more or less rigidly to the upper class of old Malay society – the royalty. Malay royalty was essentially Hindu royalty descended, according to the Malay Annals, “Sejarah Melayu”, from a legendary half-Indian and half-Greek monarch, Raja Suran, whose sons all bearing Indian proper names, Sang Nila Utama, Krishna Pandita, Nila Pahlawan, then descended on Bukit Siguntang in Sumatra from whence Malay royalty spread. The spread of Hinduism was not the result of any organised missionary movement. Indian merchants by virtue merely of their feconomic standing, drew converts from the ruling and trading classes of the races with which they traded. If Hinduism was accepted, it was because of a desire for a better standard of living rather than because of an understanding and appreciation of a superior religious system.
Hinduism spread also through marriage. The small princes of the Malaysian coastal trading centres were glad to marry off their sons and daughters to the prosperous Indian merchants or their children. For those who lived on the outskirts of the trading centre, the Hindu influence was to come much later and in gradual stages. While the common people often followed the religious faith of their rulers, there was always an undercurrent of fear of evoking the wrath of their earlier animistic deities. Hinduism was assimilated only with a lot of local theological “spice” retained.
Early Malay literature is almost completely derived from Hindu epics, from the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha. Even today, a major portion of Malay vocabulary is made up of Sanskrit words. Today, when a Malay speaks a sentence of ten words, probably five of them will be Sanskrit words, three Arabic and the remaining either of English, Chinese, Persian or of some other origin. One expert even made the sweeping claim that there are only four words in the Malay vocabulary which are genuinely Malay – “api” or fire, “besi” or iron. “padi” or rice, and “nasi” or cooked rice.
Words such as putera, son; puteri, daughter; asmara, love; samudra, ocean; belantra, jungle; kenchana, gold; sukma, soul; and literally thousands of other words are all Sanscrit words, either in original or in modified form.
What of the influence of India on the religious developments of the Malaysian peoples? Malay folk-lore and Malay literature show that during the period before the coming of Islam, about the 14th century A.D., the greater gods of the Malay pantheon were really borrowed Hindu divinities. They were, in some respect, modified by Malay ideas, but only the lesser gods and spirits were actually native to the Malay religious system. It is true these native gods and spirits can be identified with the great powers of nature, such as the spirit of the Wind (Mambang Angin), the spirit of the Waters (Hantu Ayer) and the spirit of the Sun (Mambang Kuning). But none of them appears to have the status of the chief gods of the Hindu system. Both by land and water, the terrible Shiva and Batara Guru or Kala, are supreme.
In Malay folk-lore we find Vishnu, the preserver, Brahma the creator, Batara Guru (Kala) and S’ri all invoked by Malays, especially by Malay magicians. Of all the greater deities of the Hindu system, Batara Guru is unquestionably the greatest. In Hikayat Sang Sembah , the tales of Sang Sembah, Batara Guru appears as a supreme god with Brahma and Vishnu and some subordinate deities. It is Batara Guru who alone has the “water of life”, the elixir of life, which can restore life to dead humans and animals. To the Malays of old, then, and to the Malay bomohs even of the present day in whom are preserved these notions, “tok Batara Guru” or any one of the corruptions which his name now bears, was the all-powerful god who held the place of Allah before the advent of Islam, and was a spirit so powerful that he could restore the dead to life. All prayers were addressed to him.
Of the lesser deities of Hinduism, the most notable who have remained in Malay superstition and folklore are the “gergasi”, half-human forest spirits of Hindu mythology represented in Malay folk-lore as tusked orgres that feed on human flesh. Then there is the raksaksa, a race of cannibal giants ruled, according to the Indian Puranas, by Ravana. A tribe of raksaksa is mentioned in the Kedah annals, Hikayat Marong Mahawangsa, which tell of a giant king, Maroung Maha Wangsa, who led a tribe of giants and founded the present state of Kedah which they called Langkasuka.
All in all, that a form of Hinduism was the accepted religion of the Malays prior to the advent of Islam is certain, and it is a fact amply proved by Malay folk-lore and superstition, Malay literature, Malay customs and various archaeological inscriptions.
Muslim religious teachers in Malaysia today still preach the Islamic concept of heaven in a terminology which is neither Malay nor Arabic, but Hindu. The sanskrit word “shurga” is always used in connection with the Islamic concept of paradise. The proper Arabic word for this is actually “al-jannah”. In the same way, the Hindu religious term “neraka” or hell is used by Muslim Malays to explain the Islamic concept of hell. The Arabic word for hell is “al-nar: or the place of fire. Then the Muslim fast, the annual religious abstention from food and drink, is known by the Sanskrit term “puasa”. A Muslim religious teacher is often called “guru, another Hindu religious term , in fact the name of a Hindu deity, Batara Guru. The Muslim prayer is among the Malays, called “sembahyang”. “Sembah” in Sanskrit means to pray, and “yang” is a Sanskrit term meaning divinity or conjuring respect, as in Sang Yang Tunggal”, the most divine one, and “Yang Dipertuan “.
There are many other Hindu religious terms that have lost their original meaning and are being freely and unconsciously used by Muslim Malays in connection with the religion of Islam. This shows that Hinduism exerted a profound influence on Malay culture before the coming of Islam to Malaysia. And this influence has survived, despite the strict monotheistic restrictions of the Islamic faith, to the present day. So, in religion as well as in other aspects of Malaysian culture, we cannot treat the influence of India as something belonging to the past. The political influence of old India which was climaxed by the great Empires of “Sri Vijaya” and “Majapahit” is today at an end, but the cultural influence of India which began at the beginning of the Christian era is still very much alive, and it will be alive for many, many centuries to come because it has become part of the life of the Malaysian peoples.